Defense analysts cite its ability to spy on Iran’s growing nuclear capability.
But satellites with a resolution down to 10 centimeters can do much of that as well, says national security expert Loren Thompson, with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., so the RQ-170’s main value likely has been in tracking insurgent encampments and movements across the border from Afghanistan.
Its stealth design allows it to operate in potentially hostile areas, avoiding air defense systems. That may include Syria, Dr. Thompson speculates. Other reports say the RQ-170 has been useful in gaining information about Hezbollah terrorist training camps inside Iran.
One key question now is why the drone went down over Iran.
As Thompson notes, the RQ-170 has an automatic “return to base” feature in case it loses its data link with military or CIA drone operators in Afghanistan or the United States. Because that “carrier pigeon” capability did not kick in, it’s likely that the drone experienced a software or mechanical failure.
“The big unanswered question is, what precisely do the Iranians have?” says Thompson.